INTERVIEW: From China's 1st Emperor to Woody Allen; Cinematographer Zhao Fei
by Anthony Kaufman
Much buzz has circled Chinese cinema in 1999. At Venice, Zhang Yimou‘s “Not One Less” and Zhang Yuan‘s “Seventeen Years” took the top awards; at Toronto, Zhang Yang‘s “Shower” won the FIPRESCI award for an emerging filmmaker, and at Cannes, Chen Kaige‘s “Emperor and the Assassin” premiered in the competition section, winning a Technical Jury prize. All the attention suggests a continued talent boom in the East (most palpably noticed by Sony Pictures Classics who acquired all but “Seventeen Years”). And cinematographer Zhao Fei, who shot “Emperor and the Assassin,” is one of its leading members. So much so, that of all people, Woody Allen — who the cinematographer had never heard of — imported him for his last two features.
Last weekend, Zhao Fei received a mini-retrospective of his work at New York’s Asia Society, which included screenings of Tian Zhuangzhuan‘s “The Horse Thief” and fellow Beijing Film Academy student Zhang Yimou’s “Raise the Red Lantern,” for which Zhao won best cinematography nods from the American and L.A. Films Critics Associations in 1992. With Woody’s “Sweet and Lowdown” already in release, and “Emperor and the Assassin” opening this week, Zhao Fei’s handiwork is more visible on New York screens this month than most D.P.’s see in a lifetime.
Zhao Fei took a break from shooting Woody Allen’s Summer 1999 feature to speak to indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about shooting epic 3rd century China for Chen Kaige, 1930’s New York for Allen, natural verses stylized lighting, and the international language of film crews.
indieWIRE: Can you discuss the difference between going from the epic grand scale of “Emperor and the Assassin” to Woody’s smaller scale films?
Zhao Fei: Whether I’m actually shooting a large scale epic film or a smaller scale film like Woody’s work, what I have to focus on is the lighting. It’s not so much how many people or props are involved. How do you get the lights? Where should the camera be placed? All those are the main issues whether it’s an epic scale film or a smaller film.
iW: With Chen Kaige’s work, though, I imagine the lighting is much more stylized?
Zhao: For me, shooting both films is quite similar, because it requires me to use my imagination. For “Emperor and the Assassin,” it’s a historical film of a period with not much recorded history. We read from history books and we had to imagine what the past looked like, so the lighting had to create, as you say, a very stylized look in order to capture this spirit of this pre-Ching period, which is like 3 AD. And Woody’s film is also not a contemporary film. It’s set in the 1920’s and 1930’s in the jazz age, in Chicago and New York. So not only did I need to see movies about that period, read books, understand larger issues of what America was at that time, I had to imagine and create that, as well. The one I’m shooting at the moment for Woody, which is the Summer ’99 project, is actually a contemporary film. It required much more realistic lighting, much more realistic than the other two, because they were set in the past.
iW: Is it a relief to do something that’s just naturalistic lighting?
Zhao: I welcome the challenge to work with Woody for a second time on this contemporary film. Most of my work in China is set in the past. I rarely do contemporary film. I worked on “Raise the Red Lantern,” I worked on “The Imperial Eunuch,” which is set in the late 19th Century, early 20th Century. So it’s a different set of challenges working in today’s world.
iW: What are some of those specific challenges?
Zhao: When you’re shooting historical films, you don’t have to consider the relationship between indoor and outdoor, because there’s no windows. What you see outside normally won’t work. While I’m shooting the new Woody Allen film, you have to be aware of what’s outside, to let people know that this is today’s New York. So you have to be aware of the Empire State Building, for example. So the relationship between foreground and background is slightly different; it’s lit different.
iW: Can you talk about the differences in collaborating with the two directors? Chen Kaige had a long pre-production process. I imagine there was a lot of working together on storyboarding, and I read they were pretty meticulous in the preparation.
Zhao: Working with Kaige’s film, I worked on it for a period of 6 months, but mostly concentrated in 4 months. A lot of it had to do with looking for locations, for the battlefields. For instance, the big battle scene was shot in Mongolia. We had to look at the locations to see if they gave you a feel of what that country was supposed to be like. Because Chinese people are very familiar with the story, you have a set of expectations to see whether they will work. In terms of the indoor scenes, we had to deal with the lighting, how do you light the spaces? For instance, the ending scene in the palace, the whole set was basically built. It’s a huge place, you cannot hide a light. So how do you light it? I worked with the production designer and told them I needed to light it by using natural light, so we created a crack in the ceiling. I put a piece of white cloth and bounced out the light. And so a lot of things like that were involved in the pre-production of Kaige’s film.
iW: Was there ever any give and take as far as lighting went, at the expense of the set or something else?
Zhao: Many times it was like that. In Kaige’s film, there were many scenes that it was almost like a disaster for me, because the set was so huge. And the power of the light that I could draw on is limited. Also, there’s another limitation in the film stock, itself. So under these circumstances, we have to use a lot of light; it also required me to reduce the size of the windows in order to have more concentrated light. In some instances, I’d ask the production designer to add a few more windows. Other times, the ceiling was too low and I couldn’t light it, so I had to ask him to raise the ceilings. On Woody’s film, a lot of it was realistic sets, so you couldn’t change anything, so you just had to find other ways to light.
iW: And what about working with Woody?
Zhao: On Woody Allen’s film, it’s slightly different. It’s only a 3-month period, so two months of shooting, so you have one month of preparation beforehand. And I’m working for the first time outside of China, working with Woody’s own team of people. At first, I had a translator, but gradually we realized it’s difficult to work through a translator. And given that when you’re working on a film crew, all the technical issues are the same. It became easier and I basically abandoned the translator and worked directly with the crew. When you’re talking about lights and camera position, it’s very simple; that vocabulary I do have. So it’s not that difficult to communicate with a crew on these very specifically technical things.
iW: Let’s talk more about “Emperor and the Assassin,” it’s just so big — how many camera units were there?
Zhao: Most of the time it’s only one camera unit; sometimes it’s 2 or 3, but that’s the most.
iW: What about shooting in China verses the U.S. — is the equipment the same?
Zhao: No, it’s not the same. In China, we normally use Arriflex 535b and movie cameras from Austria. Those are the only two we use in China, because we don’t have Panavision in China. You can not buy it; you can only rent it from Hong Kong for specific productions. Our conditions for production have improved, because we used to be working with equipment that was produced in China and now we’re able to use equipment that is from overseas. I don’t know enough about what happened outside of China to comment on it.